On Friday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that would change the address of the Chinese embassy in Washington to “1, Liu Xiaobo Plaza.” Liu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and co-author of pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for inciting subversion of state power; his wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since his Nobel award in 2010.
The embassy bill was authored by senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who secured Democratic cooperation by removing holds on long-pending diplomatic appointments. Its passage follows a bipartisan push in 2014 led by the late Republican congressman Frank Wolf, which won the endorsement of Liu Xia and the Washington Post’s editorial board. But according to Politico’s Nahal Toosi, the proposal is likely to run into a presidential veto if it also passes in the House:
“While we continue to impress upon China the imperative of respecting human rights and releasing Liu Xiaobo, as well as other political prisoners, we do not believe Sen. Cruz’s ploy to rename a street in Washington, D.C. is an effective way to achieve either goal,” the [White House] official said. “In fact, legislative stunts such as this complicate our efforts. We oppose this approach and would prefer to work with Congress on more productive ways to address our shared goal of improving human rights in China and around the world.”
[…] Cruz blasted the White House veto threat, calling it “yet another outrageous example of this administration’s eagerness to coddle an authoritarian Communist regime.”
“Sadly, President Obama and his administration would rather stand with the Communist Chinese than with Dr. Liu, whose only crime was to peacefully protest for basic political freedoms,” the senator said. China “should be on notice that a Cruz administration will take a very different approach.” [Source]
This month alone, Cruz has urged Obama to “stop protecting China” over North Korea, and attacked the CEO of Internet domain overseer ICANN for helping to plan China’s future World Internet Conferences. He has previously declared that Beijing has been “running over President Obama like he is a child,” and spoken out against its trade policy, forced abortions, persecution of Christians, and hacking. On the latter, he advocated “a reciprocal response, taking down the Internet firewall, taking down the Great Wall of China on the Internet and opening their people to the Net, opening them to freedom.”
On the other hand, fellow Republican candidate Marco Rubio questioned Cruz’s “tough on China” credentials earlier this month, pointing out that he “was counsel on record for a Chinese company that stole an invention from an American inventor in Florida. Here you have someone who goes around talking tough about China, but he leaves out the fact that when China stole an American inventor’s product, he stood with the Chinese.” Politifact rated the accusation “mostly true,” while the inventor gave his own account at the Concord Monitor ahead of the New Hampshire primary.
The White House is not alone in doubting that the embassy bill’s “tough” approach would help Liu. Democrat Senator Diane Feinstein, who called for the Lius’ release last October, had repeatedly blocked it, claiming that “unlike the senator from Texas, I’ve had a long experience with the Chinese, going back more than 30 years, and I know what can convince them to move toward a goal.” In 2014, the Brookings Institution’s Richard Bush told Foreign Policy that “of course, what the regime did to Liu Xiaobo violated every reasonable moral standard, and this action will make some in the West feel good. But it will not speed his release by even one day.”
Supporters of the proposed name change point to the Soviet embassy’s redesignation in 1984 as “1, Andrei Sakharov Plaza.” The dissident physicist was freed from internal exile two years later, and went on to join the new Soviet legislature shortly before his death in 1989. But his rehabilitation occurred amid changes that have little parallel in Xi’s China. From Bill Keller at The New York Times in April 1987:
What Dr. Sakharov clearly seems to think these days is that Mr. Gorbachev is sincerely bent on revolutionary changes, many of them consistent with what Dr. Sakharov himself has long advocated. Beginning shortly after his return from Gorky in December, Dr. Sakharov has found more and more to praise in the Soviet leader’s program. First it was the increased openness of public debate, then the February decrees freeing scores of political prisoners.
Dr. Sakharov now talks with favor about the economic experiments under way, and he is hopeful that Mr. Gorbachev’s call for introducing a measure of competition into elections will be a step toward real democracy. [Source]
Xi has repeatedly blamed these political changes for the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and vowed not to repeat them. Instead, his rule has seen tightening censorship and media controls, the demolition of successive civil society groups, efforts to drive out “Western values,” and a stifling of debate even within the Party.
The recent releases of two prisoners who attracted foreign support might suggest that freeing Liu could still play a part in Xi’s program. Rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was given an unexpectedly light three-year suspended sentence in December, nearly two years after his initial arrest. But stripped of his license, Pu is no longer able to practice law, and he remains under the shadow of prospective reincarceration. Journalist Gao Yu was granted medical parole from a seven-year sentence the previous month. But her release was reportedly contingent on restating a confession she had previously withdrawn, saying she had been coerced using threats to her son. The question of Liu Xiaobo’s willingness to confess in exchange for early release arose when he became eligible for parole in 2014. “Boil a rock,” Perry Link commented at the time. “When the rock softens, Liu will be ready to ‘认罪’ [admit guilt].”
While Gorbachev gained a zealous and influential supporter by freeing Sakharov, Chinese authorities appear to view Liu’s release as a liability. Before his potential parole date arrived, reports emerged of substantial backing among Party elites for him to be freed. The main obstacle, a source told Reuters, was fear that Liu would be “used” by “hostile forces” abroad. Official reactions to the embassy bill’s passage suggest that these concerns have not faded, and might only be strengthened by the street name change. Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan described the proposal as “provocative and counterproductive,” while the state-owned Global Times commented:
The apparently provocative move intends to outrage and unsettle China. But this is no big deal. In addition to anger, it will enable us to learn more about the US from another perspective: the US has big problems in abiding by the rules and keeping self-respect and its Congress acts so rashly.
The US has been at its wits’ end in dealing with China as it is reluctant to employ military threats or economic sanctions that may backfire. The only option for Washington seems to be petty actions that disturb China. But these can help China better understand what vile characters it will meet during its rise and face whatever awkwardness comes by dealing with them.
This latest move by Congress cannot change the fact that Liu jeopardized China’s national security and was sentenced to jail. The rise of China is being confronted by external forces like the US. Whether Liu feels proud of such turbulent embraces from the West or not, he has become a tool of the West against China. [Source]
The Wall Street Journal’s Felicia Sonmez noted an additional nugget from the editorial’s Chinese version: “During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards in Beijing changed the name of the street in front of the Soviet Embassy to ‘Oppose Revisionism Street.’ After the Cultural Revolution, the government changed it back.”